Rappers often credit God in their liner notes, acceptance speeches, and raps. They brag about being God’s sons and daughters. Some Five Percenter rappers have even claimed to be God, but few mainstream rappers have done so with the gusto of Jay-Z, also known by the nickname Jay-Hova, after the Judeo-Christian God. Versions of that include Hov the God, King Hov, Hov, or Hovito—and three of his albums (In My Lifetime, Hard Knock Life, and …Life and Times of S. Carter) are often referred to by the scriptural-sounding “Books of Hov.”
Jay-Z is hip hop’s mogul. According to Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s newly released Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, the $450 million dollar man’s 11 albums have sold over 50 million copies worldwide. Following the footsteps of Russell Simmons but doing it bigger and deffer, Jay-Z is the consummate businessman. In fact, he’s a business, man. Jay-Z credits his success to his hustler mentality, but he doesn’t stop there…
His Blueprint albums reference his power of creation—the divine ability to manifest something out of nothing as God did when he spoke the world into existence. He describes himself as hip hop’s savior on his return-from-retirement album Kingdom Come, which samples the Lord’s Prayer “thy will be done, thy kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven.”
“Put Me Anywhere on God’s Green Earth/ I’ll Triple My Worth”
Although Jay-Z would not be considered a religious rapper per anyone’s definition (including his own), he came of age with religion in the air. In his book Decoded, Jay-Z explains, “Church wasn’t a major part of my life growing up… But when you grow up in a place like Bed-Stuy, church is everywhere. So is mosque. So are a thousand other ways of believing.” Jay-Z alludes to cultural Christianity and cultural Islam—the experience of being surrounded by religion without embracing it as a ritualized practice.
Jay-Z is merely one of many rappers who incorporate religo-cultural influences into his lyrics about surviving economically depressed environments. In the hood, the air is thick with both religion and poverty; the mix often results in lived religion—a dynamic religion-in-action where people negotiate contradictory motivations and desires by adapting traditional religious practices to new conceptual spaces.
Jay-Z’s body of work lives religion by connecting it with capitalism. As Jay-Hova, Jay-Z’s power to profit is endless. As he boasts on “U Don’t Know”: “Put me anywhere on God’s green Earth/ I’ll triple my worth.” Jay-Z believes in God, and he believes he can be God when it suits him. His presentation as a peerless entrepreneur is secured through these appropriations of an Absolute authority. Lived religion makes room for a coexistence of piety and braggadocio that should not be mistaken for blasphemy.
In addition to being God, sometimes Jay-Z rocks an icon of God around his neck. Despite criticisms that wearing a platinum Jesus piece is disingenuous, Jay-Z habitually wears a Jesus piece while recording an album. Jesus’ presence, close to Jay-Z’s heart prophesies the album’s future profits.
Jay-Z’s lyrical characters often ask God to support their attempts to make money by any means necessary. In “Pray,” the gangster asks the Lord to forgive and guide him as he enters the unscrupulous world of drug distribution and corrupt police. The final verse alludes to shame and regret but contextualizes the drug profession as a response to oppression. In “Public Service Announcement,” a song that also traffics in the drug distribution theme, Jay-Z makes it clear “Only God can judge me, so I’m gone/ Either love me, or leave me alone.” God understands, and can be petitioned with any request—even for help in an illicit underground economy.
Doing Wrong for all the Right Reasons
Serving God and money is Jay-Z’s way of addressing the contradiction that comes from living in a neighborhood where there are a thousand ways of believing and little evidence that conditions are improving. Jay-Z lyrically balances the external forces of poverty and oppression with the adrenaline rush and capitalist successes of the hustler’s life, and then with the hustler’s private conversations with God. Many of Jay-Z’s suffering, sin, and salvation narratives are appealing because his characters do wrong for all the right reasons.
For Jay-Z, aligning rap and religion was the right decision to secure his place in the hip hop hall of fame. After the murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the hip hop world experienced a void that Jay-Z filled by propagandizing bling as a God-ordained form of worship.
Hip hop scholars Marc Lamont Hill and Josef Sorett have tracked the simultaneous rise of the bling era of hip hop with the bling era of Christianity. Hill writes, “Hip-hop’s obsession with ‘flossing’ and ‘stunting’ is matched only by the New Black Church’s flair for the ostentatious. Many of today’s superstar preachers are similarly lavish in their public appearances.” Prosperity gospel is not limited to Sunday sermons.
The acquisition of wealth as a signifier of success has been interpreted as a blessing from God by both preachers and rappers. As Sorett has argued, “To invoke Christianity, whether or not one expresses an exclusive allegiance to its theological tenets, has been to avail oneself of rhetorical, cultural, and financial capital.” Part of Jay-Z’s legacy is the marriage of God and money as a lifetime partnership for the purist of power and respect.
The value of hip hop’s commercial viability is highly contested. Some argue that hip hop’s mass commercialization and uber-ubiquity has diluted the art form. They believe that as long as market forces dictate rappers’ persistent babble about cash, cars, and hos, rap music will never be prophetic. Others argue that hip hop has an inherent entrepreneurial spirit that will continue to inspire lyrical ingenuity about the path to success. Both sides must concede that the crossroad where rap meets religion has been marked by market forces for many years.
Jay-Z learned this lesson years ago. God told him to build an empire. His success is not just a blessing, or luck or a Midas touch, it’s a state of mind.